Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Coltrane, John (John William)

Intensity. Power. Passion. These words readily come to mind when you hear the music of saxophonist John Coltrane. As Miles Davis once said, “It was like he was possessed when he put that horn in his mouth.”

This ferocity for music, however, was hardly evident off the bandstand. Coltrane’s humble demeanor and quiet voice barely hinted at the unrest his music could communicate.

Coltrane’s technical virtuosity, matchless compositions and unique approach to improvisation made him one of the most influential musicians in jazz.

John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina to John R. and Alice Coltrane. Shortly after his birth, the Coltrane family moved north in the state to the town of High Point, in order to be closer to Alice’s family.


                   John Coltrane, artwork by Michael Symonds

Coltrane’s first organized musical experience came around 1939, when he began to play alto horn and later clarinet in High Point’s community band. By the fall of 1940, he was listening to Lester Young, who inspired the young musician to switch to the alto saxophone, which he played in the band at William Penn High School.

Even early on, Coltrane was known for his concentration and for his obsessive practicing. “He kept that saxophone with him all the time,” recalled childhood friend Rossetta Haywood, “back in the music room practicing by himself... he just loved that horn.”

After graduating from high school, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia in June of 1943 with hopes of becoming a professional musician. In 1944, he enrolled at the Ornstein School of Music and began private saxophone lessons and classes in music theory. By 1945, he had joined the Philadelphia musicians’ union, and was playing gigs around town.

In July of 1945, Coltrane and his friend Benny Golson, who also played saxophone, went to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker play at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. “The first time I heard Bird play,” Coltrane said, “it hit me right between the eyes.” While he had first modeled his playing on Young’s, and then that of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, after the concert Coltrane began to emulate Parker, and set his sights on mastering the alto saxophone.

Coltrane was drafted at the tail end of World War II, and spent about a year in the Navy, stationed in Hawaii. In the Navy, he played in ad-hoc bands for officers’ parties. On his return to Philadelphia, he began studying music at the Granoff Studios, with the financial support of the G.I. Bill.

This period of study helped Coltrane develop a solid foundation in the fundamentals of western art music, music theory and ear training. These elements ultimately played a key role in the development of his approaches to both composition and improvisation.

From 1946 to 1952, Coltrane toured with various bandleaders, including Joe Webb, King Kolax, Jimmy Heath, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Bostic. Early in 1948, Coltrane developed a taste for heroin, which began to adversely affect his professional life.

In November of 1948, Coltrane switched to the tenor saxophone, when he joined the band of Eddie Vinson. The change enabled Coltrane to move beyond the influence of Charlie Parker since, as he described it, “a wider area of listening opened up for me.”

Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and continued his studies at Granoff. He practiced and composed relentlessly through 1953 and 1954. In March of 1954, Coltrane joined the band of his former idol Johnny Hodges. “We played honest music in this band,” Coltrane later told writer and critic Ira Gitler. “It was my education to the older generation.” However, Hodges fired the younger player in September of 1954, because of his drug habit.

At the recommendation of drummer Philly Joe Jones, trumpeter Miles Davis hired Coltrane in September of 1955, when he was unable to persuade saxophonist Sonny Rollins to join his group. At first, Miles was unsure Coltrane would make the best fit for his band. However, Davis soon found Coltrane’s contrasting style complemented his own, much in the way Miles complemented Charlie Parker a decade earlier.

The sound of Miles’ quintet, which featured pianist Red Garland, Paul Chambers on bass, and drummer Philly Joe Jones, was highly influential, and for many became the signature sound of jazz in this era, with their unforgettable versions of tunes such as ”’Round Midnight,” ”Oleo,” and ”On Green Dolphin Street.”

Coltrane’s association with Miles brought an increased amount of public attention, notoriety, and also a significant amount of criticism for his harsh sound and fierce playing. Miles always supported Coltrane’s playing publicly, but fired him in April of 1957 for drug use.

Coltrane took this unexpected hiatus to gather himself personally and professionally, with the help of his wife, Juanita Austin, who was known as Naima. Naima introduced her husband to the ideas of Sufi Islam, which helped him battle and ultimately overcome his addiction to heroin.

By May of 1957, Coltrane had kicked his heroin habit. “During the year 1957,” Coltrane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”

Coltrane’s health and playing improved, and on May 31st he went into the studio to record Coltrane for Prestige, his first album as a leader. In the coming years, Coltrane released a number of records under his own name for the label. In September, Coltrane recorded Blue Train for Blue Note. The title track, as well as songs such as “Moment’s Notice,” made this one of Coltrane’s best-selling albums.

In July 1957, Coltrane begins performing with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot on New York City’s Lower East Side. “Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order,” Coltrane later recalled. “I felt I learned from him in every way—through the sense, theoretically, [and] technically.”

Coltrane and Monk performed together at Carnegie Hall on November 29, The recording of this performance, thought lost for half a century, was recently discovered in the archives of the Library of Congress. The recording reveals a fuller picture of the sound of the two artists’ collaboration, on tunes such as “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a song Monk wrote for his wife.

Freed from his heroin addiction and renewed by his experiences with Monk, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’s group in January of 1958. Coltrane’s dense playing style during this period became an identifiable part of his mature musical personality.

“In 1958 he started playing sections that might be termed ‘sheets of sound,’” wrote Ira Gitler in the October 16, 1958 issue of Downbeat. “When these efforts are successful, they have a cumulative emotional impact, a residual harmonic effect. When they fail, they sound like nothing more than elliptically phrased scales.”

Gitler’s term, “sheets of sound,” became a favorite of critics and fans alike to describe Coltrane’s unique approach to improvisation.

In March and April of 1959, The Miles Davis sextet recorded a series of sessions for Columbia that were later released as the album Kind of Blue. Considered one of the most pivotal recordings in jazz history, Kind Of Blue opened up the harmonic landscape for improviser, by featuring long durations of the same chord, a departure from the harmonic language of bebop, which remained rooted in the chordal conventions of the era’s popular music.

For Coltrane, the longer harmonic forms of tunes such as ”So What “ increased his freedom as an improviser, which ultimately became one of the defining features of his music from the 1960s. While Kind of Blue is undoubtedly one of Davis’s great achievements, we should not underestimate Coltrane’s contribution to the sound of these sessions.

In addition to his association with Miles, Coltrane continued work on his own musical projects. In May and December of 1959, he went into the studio with his own group to record the album Giant Steps for Atlantic. This album included three songs dedicated to family members: “Cousin Mary” for Coltrane’s cousin; “Syeeda’s Song Flute” for his stepdaughter; and “Naima” for his wife.

This album’s centerpiece was Coltrane’s composition “Giant Steps,”which features a difficult chord sequence he developed that remains a benchmark for improvisational skill in jazz. Given how different this recording is to Kind of Blue , it is remarkable that Coltrane was able to record in such disparate styles at roughly the same time.

In October of 1960, Coltrane recorded tracks that eventually became three albums: My Favorite Things, issued in March 1961, Coltrane Plays the Blues, issued in 1962, and Coltrane’s Sound, issued in 1964.

“My Favorite Things” is a catchy waltz from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical “The Sound of Music.” This track features Coltrane playing the soprano saxophone, and became a hit single in its own right. His work on soprano brought the semi-obscure instrument into mainstream jazz, where it remains to this day.

By the end of 1961, Coltrane settled on a permanent lineup for his working quartet. Featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” recorded and performed together for the next five years.

“It felt like a perfect blend, a joy,” said Elvin Jones. “It was always a joy to play, in a recording studio or a nightclub. It was the same feeling, in front of a large audience or no one at all. Music was our sole purpose.”

The Impulse label recorded the Coltrane quartet plus multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy during a long run at New York’s Village Vanguard club in November of 1961. Much of the music recorded at the Vanguard was influenced by Coltrane’s growing interest in Indian music, specifically the music of the sitar player Ravi Shankar. Some did not immediately accept Coltrane’s experimentation and critical reception was often negative.

On November 23 of 1961, Down Beat reviewer John Tynan referred to a recent Coltrane performance as part of a “growing anti-jazz trend.” Ira Gitler called his music “monotonous, a treadmill to the Kingdom of Boredom.”

Despite the negative sentiment expressed by critics, it was hard to argue with the emotional power of Coltrane’s music. Down Beat critic Pete Welding described his playing on tracks such as ”Chasin’ the Trane” as “a torrential and anguished outpouring, delivered with unmistakable power, conviction, and near-demonic ferocity—and as such is a remarkable human document.”

In part to show his more accessible side, Coltrane went into the studio with jazz great Duke Ellington, resulting in the album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Their version of “In a Sentimental Mood” is one of the seminal versions of this well-known song.

Along the same lines, in November of 1962 Coltrane recorded most of the tracks for his Ballads album and in March 1963, he recorded tracks such as "Lush Life" with vocalist Johnny Hartman. As hoped, these albums succeed in winning over many of Coltrane’s critics

In December of 1964, the Coltrane quartet recorded his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. The four-part suite was a reflection of Coltrane’s spirituality, his battle to overcome heroin addiction and the discovery of his true musical self.

The recording was named Album of the Year in Down Beat and became Coltrane’s best selling album. Coltrane’s spiritual outlook influenced much of his composing and playing in the remainder of his life.

As one reflection of the spiritual power Coltrane’s music holds for some, an African Orthodox Church in San Francisco has recognized Coltrane as a saint since 1971.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Coltrane showed an increasing interest in the experimental jazz of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and others. By the time Coltrane records Ascension in 1965, his music had become increasingly abstract and dissonant, with greater use of multiphonics, overblowing, and the altissimo register of high notes above the saxophone’s natural range.

In the Civil Rights era, the potent emotional content of Coltrane’s music spoke to many in a profound way. “Trane’s music,” said Miles Davis, “and what he was playing during the last two or three years of his of his life represented, for many blacks, the first and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectual and revolutionaries of that time.”

By the fall of 1965, Coltrane was regularly using both saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali in addition to his regular quartet. In November, they recorded Meditations, featuring the two drummers playing simultaneously on tracks such as ”Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Meditations).”

At the end of the year, Tyner left Coltrane’s group and was replaced by Alice McCleod. In 1966, became Alice became Coltrane’s second wife. Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison also left the group in 1966. Coltrane continued to record in an increasingly abstract style, with two live albums that year, Live in Japan and Live at the Village Vanguard Again!

Coltrane’s late style can also be heard on tracks such as ”Mars (Interstellar space)” from the album Interstellar Space, and Stellar Regions, both recorded in 1967.

Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967. Since his death, Coltrane has increasingly received as recognition as one of the most influential musicians in American music. In 1982, he posthumously awarded a Grammy Award of "Best Jazz Solo Performance" for the work on his album, Bye Bye Blackbird, and received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

In 2007, Coltrane received “a posthumous special citation for his masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz” from the Pulitzer Prize Board.

As the ultimate iconic figure in jazz history, Coltrane’s story follows a familiar heroic narrative. A rising talent succumbs to temptation, suffering tragedy before overcoming his personal weakness and reaching unparalleled heights.

Although it is tempting to finish the story with a fanfare, a hero’s tale would fail to recognize the tragedy of Coltrane’s death at the young age of 40, with so much of his life left to live, and much more music left to play.

Yet forty years after his death, Coltrane’s star shines over jazz and many continue to find new meaning in the music he left behind. "I never thought about whether or not people understand what I'm doing,” Coltrane once told Leonard Feather. “The emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there's some feeling of communication, it isn't necessary that it be understood."

Fortunately, Coltrane left us a lot to think about.

Contributor: Darren Mueller